In praise of classic train journeys

Words: Lee Tulloch

I’m writing this on the fast train from Paris to Lyon.

I’m a fan of trains, especially the French TGV, which I’ve always found comfortable and efficient. In fact, train is my preferred mode of travel. I’d rather be on the ground than on the sea or in the air.

Fast cars make me nervous. But I love the whoosh of speeding along by rail. Or even the teeth-rattling excitement of jolting through the landscape in an old train. I really feel I’m going places.

A couple of years ago, I took the Rajadhani Express from Peradeniya to Hatton in Sri Lanka. As we rattled through a tunnel, passengers in the crowded carriage started whooping and yelling, just so they could hear their voices echo in the tunnel. It was the closest expression of pure joy at the thrill of travel I’ve ever heard.

I always feel that thrill on a train, even when it’s a dubious one, such as the ancient trains on the Romanian rail network. Several years ago, I was in Busteni in Transylvania on a writer’s program.  A few of us decided that we wanted to travel to Sighisoara, the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler. The only way to get there was by local train. No one at the Busteni station could tell us exactly when the train was due and there was no information about return trains. But we took our chances.

The correct train arrived after an hour. It was very old indeed and filthy. The stations weren’t well signposted and we almost missed Sighisoara. At Sighisoara station we were told there wasn’t a return train that day.

At the end of a wonderful day exploring the medieval city, we did find a train that went in our direction. But it was dark and we couldn’t tell which station was Busteni. People onboard gave us differing information. In dismay, we eventually discovered the train didn’t stop at our town. In the dark, we jumped off when it next stopped, in the middle of a rail yard. We ran across unlit railway tracks and managed not to be hit by a freight train. We piled into a taxi and eventually got back to our lodgings, safe and exhilarated.

The only time I took the famous Ghan, from Darwin to Adelaide, we hit a camel.

Perhaps the Romanian trains are now as comfortable as the French or Spanish trains. But even when the service is poor, you’re guaranteed an adventure on a train.  The only time I took the famous Ghan, from Darwin to Adelaide, we hit a camel. A lot of crockery was smashed, but luckily no one was hurt, except the poor camel.

A couple of years ago, I took one of the ultimate train journeys, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. (‘Simplon’ for the tunnel it passes through between Italy and Switzerland.) It was on its inaugural journey from Venice to Stockholm via Innsbruck and Copenhagen.

The Express d’Orient, as it was known when it began service from Paris to Constantinople in 1883, was a luxurious link between Western Europe and the Middle East until it ceased operation in 1977. Thanks to James Sherwood, at the time the new owner of Venice’s Cipriani Hotel, the carriages were hunted down, restored at phenomenal cost and the train relaunched in 1982.

I tried to manage my expectations, thinking that perhaps the restored train had sacrificed authenticity for modern comfort, but in fact the VSOE is wonderfully authentic, down to the last beautiful brass fitting. No ensuite bathrooms or King Sized beds here – you sleep in cosy bunks, wash in a basin and the toilet is at the end of the carriage.

From the steward service in the cabins to the ritual of selecting your dining time and dining car, you really do feel as if Agatha Christie might be in the next carriage, writing her novel. A century ago, there may have been no internet (the train doesn’t have wifi) but it’s masterpiece of efficient luxury, befitting the Maharajas and Presidents who have travelled on it. Sleeping tucked tight into your bunk as the train rolls along is one of the great experiences.

Until 2003, there was an Orient Express-operated train, the Great Southern Pacific Express, which travelled from Kuranda to Sydney, in partnership with Queensland Rail.  I’m sad it no longer exists, as I’m frustrated that we still don’t have a network of fast long-distance commuter trains in Australia.

I’d love to whoosh from Sydney to Melbourne in a few hours.





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